The following was written by Howard Schmuckler for the Fort Washington Fire Company newsletter, and shared with Patch to maximize public notice. To view and subscribe to the fire company's monthly newsletter, click here.
There are an estimated 1,700 fires at college campuses in the United States annually. Between January 2000 and August 2009, 135 college students died in campus related fires.
As students return to colleges and universities in late August through early September, August and September are typically the worst months for fatal campus related housing fires. Statistics show that 84 percent of these fires occurred in off campus housing, and these fires do not occur in any particular section of the country, as fatal campus fires killed college students in 39 states since the year 2000.
The number one cause of fires in college dormitories, classroom buildings, and fraternity and sorority houses is cooking. The next leading cause is arson or suspected arson, and the third leading cause is smoking. Impaired judgment from the consumption of alcohol was often a large factor in these fire deaths.
Many students do not realize the seriousness of fire safety in campus housing. They either ignore it, or have the opinion that they know what they are doing, and a fire will not result from their actions. For example, it has been found that despite a school’s policy prohibiting certain cooking appliances, candles, some types of lights and other equipment, students ignore the warnings and insist on “secretly” using them.
Another problem often found is the overloading of electrical outlets with too many appliances. Schools will often conduct inspections of residential living areas specifically to look for prohibited items, and other violations. There is a greater risk in off-campus housing.
Unfortunately, many of these properties are not properly maintained and do not have adequate fire safety equipment such as working smoke alarms or a fire sprinkler system. Smoke alarms and automatic sprinkler systems have established an impressive fire prevention record in all types of residences, commercial buildings, as well as institutional type buildings. The number of deaths, serious injury and property damage has been minimized where both of these systems have been installed.
However, some investigations at fatal fires in campus housing revealed that there were missing or disabled smoke alarms. An early warning system can often times prevent injury or death, as people can implement their escape plan in ample time.
Like in any residence, students should have an emergency escape plan. The school or property should have one already in place, so the student should learn what it is, and should practice it regularly.
If there is no plan in place, work with school officials, landlords of off campus housing and other students, and develop an escape plan. You can contact the local fire department or fire marshal for guidance.
When the fire alarm or a smoke alarm is activated, students should respond immediately by following the emergency escape plan. The alarm should never be ignored, or taken lightly. React quickly and safely. Get out and stay out until someone in authority (fire department, police department or school official) gives notice that it is safe to enter the building.
As part of evaluating a college for possible attendance, you should attend an open house at the school. Tour the facilities and give attention to the presence of smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors, sprinkler systems and other fire safety equipment. Ask questions of school officials regarding the fire prevention equipment the school utilizes, and what procedures the schools have in place regarding fire prevention and fire safety.
When a student moves into on campus or off campus housing, make sure that the smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are present and working. If permitted, install a new smoke alarm that you purchase, so that you know that it is not old, and the battery is fresh, reducing the risk that the unit may malfunction.
If this equipment is not present, have one installed by the school or landlord, or do it yourself. Students don’t realize, but when they take risks, they are not only jeopardizing their own lives and all of their possessions, but also those of their friends and fellow students.